It took three hours and fifty nine minutes for Novak Djokovic to grind out his eighth Australian Open final victory. Last night’s five-set battle with Dominic Thiem was a gruelling slog. It harkened back to Djokovic’s six-hour duel with Rafael Nadal in 2012. By all accounts, it was display of elite athleticism and endurance from both players.
It shouldn’t have even happened.
Here’s my thesis, as the least committed tennis fan on Earth: there’s simply too much tennis in each match of men’s tennis, and Grand Slam tournaments should adopt the best-of-three system used on the women’s circuit. Cutting off those needless sets would make matches more enjoyable for spectators, minimise injuries, and, crucially, allow me to sleep before 12.30am. Thanks, Novak.
The numbers back me up on this one. After crunching a decade of data from the ATP World tour and the Davis Cup, statisticians put the odds of a pro player winning the match after taking the first two sets at about 94%. A New York Times analysis of the 2013 French Open confirmed that figure across the first three rounds of competition. Simply put, the odds are overwhelmingly with the player who takes an early lead, rendering each proceeding set largely irrelevant.
Yes, comebacks happen, and watching a competitor claw their was back from near-certain defeat is probably why anyone watches sport in the first place. But when the odds are so futile at two sets to love, is it really worth the effort? Besides, shorter matches would allow more upsets – if last night’s match was capped at three, Thiem would have secured his maiden Grand Slam title. Condensing the men’s game would allow more volatility between unevenly matched opponents, trading suspense for surprise. Again, it would allow me to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
(As an aside, Germany’s Mischa Zverev lobbed a taunt at Australian Nick Kyrgios before the Australian Open. He doubted Kyrgios’ ticker, saying “It is not a three-set match where you can win in an hour-and-20 and get off the court. To beat the best, you have to play at your best for a longer period of time.” Kyrgios nearly defeated Nadal in five sets this month, but Zverev almost has a point: if Kyrgios had to use all of his magic in just three sets, I think he’d be Australian Open champion right now.)
Let’s move away from spectators for a moment. A 2017 paper published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine states that over a decade, Wimbledon inflicted 23.4 player injuries per 1000 sets played. Between 2007 and 2012, 52% of those injuries were caused by simple overuse. And that’s on grass. There’s precious little time for pro circuit players to adapt their game to different court surfaces, and one style of play might have ruinous results in a different tournament. If you’re not gonna cut hard court events from the calendar, cut the number of sets. Simple.
Let the record show I am not the first person to advocate for cutting the men’s game to best of three. Maria Sharapova and Martina Navratilova, two titans of the women’s game, have both called for the fellas to play just a little less. Sitting here, dazed by sleep deprivation, I have to agree with them.
Less tennis will make tennis better. Now, if you excuse me, I need another coffee.Image: James D. Morgan / Getty Images